Who retards change in Ethiopia?
By Teklu Abate (Ph.D)
December 1, 2012

Chairman of Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party, Dr Negasso Gidada, nicely highlighted the current political condition in Ethiopia. In a discussion forum arranged for party members, Ethiopia’s former president identified major challenges and problems that strangle contemporary politics.
The absence of a united public movement for change, the authoritarian nature of the governing party, the limiting nature of the electoral system, the ineffective culture of mediation and negotiation, and the tendency to expect change from above and abroad are major issues highlighted by Dr Negasso. He stressed that the governing party is not willing to change or relinquish power in its own accord. His suggestion is that, in order to bring genuine change, the Ethiopian people must nurture their political culture and must create immense pressure on the governing party.

Overall, I found his presentation seminal and would like to contribute to the debate. Dr Negasso identified problems, challenges and possible strategies for change. My take is on the stakeholders who should be held responsible for the absence of significant political change in Ethiopia. My paper is organized around answering this question: Who retards political change in Ethiopia? By “political change”, I mean any movement that points toward a governance style that builds on and nurtures democratic ideals and practices. The goal of my paper is to initiate discussions and to invite all stakeholders to reflect on their political identity and participation.

My argument is that there are several stakeholders who should share the blame. I identified four groups of stakeholders who together map Ethiopia’s political field. To me, neither the government, the opposition, foreign governments and organizations, nor the Ethiopian Diaspora are the most important factors. I argue that the role international organizations (e.g. the UN system, IMF, the World Bank, AU, EU) and foreign governments could play is extremely limited and has a lot to do with legitimization. The real actors behind the messy political scene in Ethiopia are, in their order of significance, the people (called the core), the opposition, the government, and the Diaspora. My arguments are highlighted below and are based on principle, rhetoric, and my own observations.

The Core

This category of factors is at the core of everything. They could potentially reconfigure the political landscape. Unfortunately, we do not happen to see any promising participation from the parties; the general public and the educated.

The Public. Millions and millions of Ethiopians are aliens to politics. The average Ethiopian seems to believe that formally participating in politics is beyond his/her capacity and is risky. They expect, as Dr Negasso rightly explained, opposition political parties and some individuals to initiate and sustain political change. The public attitude toward politics seems unfavorable and/or neutral. They do not believe that the people is the power, as shown recently in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Syria, and other states. The people prefer to keep blind and deaf when their basic constitutional rights are violated. They just consider that the ruling party and the government got the guns and the guts to rule and rule. The national culture favors the status quo and does not champion or at least tolerate change. The culture has conformist ideals at its core. Power and decision making are supposed to be the business of a few.

Because of 1) their sheer size, 2) they being the source of political power, and 3) they being the ones who suffer most from injustices of all sorts, I hold the general public the most accountable when it comes to the embarrassing political culture of Ethiopia. Their skeptical and pessimistic view of politics is a giant obstacle that stands on the way to change. The public seems to make a retreat to religion to explain and cope up with all phenomena. Particularly worrisome is that even those who were educated at high cost to bring change seem to identify with the silent crowd.

The Educated

The educated are rhetorically expected to be the voice for the voiceless. Ethiopian intellectuals are not significantly contributing to political development. Except the very few who oppose injustices of all sorts in various ways, the majority are in a deep sleep of carelessness, negligence, and/or reluctance. One may raise the lack of opportunity to contribute but creating one should be part of the struggle. In fact, there are several intellectuals who fail to protect their own constitutional rights at work places. They do not cry for justice, equality, freedom and transparency related to their professional jobs. A cold-blooded cadre dictates and abuses a senior professor/scientist. If we have to name someone responsible for sustaining the ugly political face in Ethiopia, the educated must come second only to the general public.

The Opposition

Only next to the contributions of the general public and the educated comes the role of opposition political parties based in Ethiopia. Because of their infancy and because of their organizational capacity, I do not expect them to bring real change by themselves in a short period of time, and hence they are only third in terms of significance.

They still must take the next highest level of blame for the mediocre political culture we are trapped in. They were expected to mobilize the public for the public good- democratic governance. They were expected to bring functional political literacy among the masses. They were expected to be models for defending the rule of law.

They were expected to maneuver to get permissions to convene and to demonstrate. Getting the minds and hearts of majority Ethiopians was their natural duty. They were expected to challenge the government by developing and communicating better policies and strategies. They were expected to teach the government how to govern in the 21st Century.

Rather, they ‘teach’ the public how to get divided, antagonistic, and egoistic. The embarrassing fall of Kinjit and other coalitions is fresh on the minds of millions. It left a political scar that continues to scare its victims- the public. The agenda of the opposition every year is about mergers and unification among them. Their usual cry is one and only one- that the political playing field is getting narrower over time.

Here, I am not belittling unification and merger efforts. Nor I deny that the government is playing unfair. I am making the point that a real opposition must maneuver and force the governing party to surrender or retreat. Playing tough on a rough ground is what matters most in places like Ethiopia. Whatever conditions assembled by the government out there, opposition parties must take a huge amount of the blame.

The Government

I subscribe to the rhetoric that government is needed to safeguard individual and collective rights and to facilitate socio-economic and political advancement. Government is made from the people to the people by the people. That means, power is and must be in the hands of the people and the government must be considered as the executive arm of the people. Unfortunately, once they grab power, politicians seem to detach themselves from the people. Worse is that they start to intimidate the very people who give them their positions.

The lack of democratic governance and freedom in Ethiopia is attributed to the government only to a certain extent. The power givers, the people, are expected to regulate their executive arm. Because of the absence of accountability and transparency enforcing mechanisms, the government in Ethiopia seems to play against the very constitution it drafted. The constitution clearly bestows on citizens the right to: express self freely in any form, convene and demonstrate, for instance. In practice, for a whole number of trash reasons, the public is denied of these basic rights and in fact several are in prison for they exercised their natural and constitutional rights. The entire population is expected to demand their denied rights. The owner of a house must devise mechanisms that help him to keep thieves at bay.

Another major problem for which the government must take responsibility and blame is the absence of distinction between the governing party (EPRDF) and the entity we call government. As Dr Negasso indicated, EPRDF means the government and the government means EPRDF. That means, decision making, resource mobilization and use are not differentiated between party and government apparatuses. This has a serious implication when it comes to, say, the autonomy and integrity of public institutions.

Rhetoric has it that the media, schools, universities and other institutions should freely serve the public. Although it may be nearly a practical impossibility not to have some level of government steering, these institutions must be led and managed in such a way that they serve the people and the constitution than the governing party. In Ethiopia, even traditionally the most autonomous institutions, universities, fall prey to party whims. Faculty and leaders are not free to do their professional duties. Every bit and piece of decision the EPRDF makes shakes the daily operations of institutions. The police, the military, and the security apparatuses stand in clear defense of party interests. Surely, the government is for sure bringing a much more adverse effect to Ethiopian politics than the Diaspora does.

The Diaspora

The Diaspora are making seminal contributions to socio-economic and political realities back home. Their support ranges from making financial contributions to opposition parties at home to communicating government’s and oppositions’ deeds to the international community.

I argue that the Diaspora should also be held responsible for part of the political mess for various reasons. One, their support does not discriminate between democratic and authoritarian opposition parties back home. They funded several parties which are as autocratic and dictatorial as the ruling party. They failed to demand transparency, accountability, and impact while making donations. Two, rather than taking a non- partisan and evaluative stance following the fall of Kinjit, several get involved in the divisions and helped maintain different factions.

Three, they do not initiate and maintain a culture of debate that involves both EPRDF and opposition members and supporters. One is an alien to the other and if by chance they happen to meet in an event or a meeting, things just change for the worst. Rather than resorting to civilized debate and discourses, they usually throw nasty words against each other.

Four, this polarized view of politics and Ethiopia is maintained by the media in the Diaspora. Websites and blogs are as battlefields as Badme and Shiraro were years ago. Media maintained by EPRDF sympathizers never post a paper that criticizes government, no matter how genuine and constructive the argument the paper makes.

Media run by opposition sympathizers are also reluctant to publish papers a) that seem to have EPRDF flavor, or 2) that do not champion their editorial statements. It is not uncommon to read papers that are full of insults and character assassinations. Exceptions are such broadcast media as ESAT, VOA and DW, who tried hard to get perspectives from government officials on a number of issues.

Five, Diaspora associations, political parties, and discussion forums do not appear democratic and change prone. Rather than waging a protracted political struggle against the governing party, several keep fighting each other. Several keep on cloning themselves and confuse the public. I have written a paper on this issue and is available at http://tekluabate.blogspot.no/2012/10/d-day-ethiopian-type.html.

Six, the educated Diaspora do not often get involved in discussions that target at bringing final consensus and change. Only a handful of the intellectuals actually take their time to write and communicate discussion papers. Bad is that those limited writers do not read each other; each forwards his/her own ideas on different topics. Follow up discussions and then at last broad agreements are thus hard to come by.

From the aforementioned arguments alone, one could conclude that the Diaspora hardly positively shape the political field. It is fair to say that we the Ethiopian Diaspora have, by design or by tradition, done and are doing a lot messy things that retard political advancement. If not as huge as the mess created by the government and home-based opposition political parties, our problem is big enough to be addressed. We seem to play so wild on the political playing field that even autocratic officials back home and elsewhere make fun out of us. Making politics in a barbaric way while living in and working for some of the most democratic societies on earth is hard to explain.

Concluding Remarks

To initiate discussions and then self-evaluations, this paper tried to outline the most important stakeholders who unfortunately suffocate the political climate in Ethiopia. They all have pathological relationships and retard socio-economic and political advancement. Nearly all countries of the world outachieve us in nearly all development indicators. Despite our abundant natural resources and our talented workforce, we lag behind all nations. We fight each other all the time and we get no guts and goals to fight poverty. The real sources of political power, the people, should be held the most accountable on this regard. The opposition and the government are the next to be blamed. This conclusion is, however, not based on empirical evidence. The conclusion is made based on what is supposed to be the case, logic, and my own personal observations. Discussions that draw on a whole array of sources and perspectives are much appreciated.

The writer could be reached for comments at teklu.abate@gmail.com.

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